Wednesday, November 30, 2011

AD&D Rules and the Voting Public

A few weeks back I had a poll running regarding many of the complexities that were added to AD&D that were left out of Holmes and Moldvay BX; one thing I've noticed in the blogosphere is there's way more energy behind OD&D and BX (or Swords & Wizardry / Labyrinth Lord) than AD&D or OSRIC.  Smarter folks have certainly pointed that out too - DIY is more inline with the simpler games, rather than AD&D's " don't do it yourself, we've added all the house rules already".

With that in mind, how did the polling public respond regarding the use of AD&D's sub systems?  124 visitors responded; the original questions were phrased "How many of the following AD&D rules do you ignore, or modify with House Rules? "  For purposes of the results, I switched the percentages around, so what we're seeing is the percentage of respondents that use the rules without changes - that's a bit easier to parse.

AD&D's premise might have been to do away with DIY, but one thing is clear; we like to change around the rules.  Here's how folks voted:

Combat Related Rules
Weapon vs AC (20%), Weapon Speed Factors (25%), Melee Segments (42%), Firing Missiles into Melee (68%), Helmets in Melee (38%), Unarmed Combat (42%)

Weapon vs AC is one of those great ideas that could have been awesome if it was integrated into the system from the beginning - for instance, if the armor types were simplified (none, leather, scale, chain, etc) and if monsters were given armor types as part of their descriptions.  The vampire has AC 1 or 2, but is treated as no armor for weapon vs AC purposes - that kind of stuff.  As it is, no wonder only 20% of the folks use it when playing AD&D.  The only other surprise here to me was the 42% response for using AD&D's unarmed combat rules; it's the one combat subsystem I loathe.

Overall though, these are the types of rules you'd expect in an advanced version of the game, and I've previously argued that they add complexity to player choice, which is valuable, even if they don't work very well as a simulation.

Magic Rules
Spell Components (43%), Casting Times (59%),  Magic Resistance (84%)

84% of the voters use Magic Resistance; makes sense, as it gives the more dangerous monsters some teeth.  My view of spell components has changed over time, and I'd definitely use them if we go "advanced"; they're valuable as quest items and player motivation in a sandbox, and also regulate the use of certain spells (creating an unofficial rarity based on the difficulty of getting the components).

The abandonment of spell components in the player base seems to be one of those things that resulted from overuse of tournament style modules with little downtime or chance to resupply during an extended adventure - it's just easier to hand wave them away and keep the action moving.  Avoids the book-keeping too.

Alignment (67%)

The AD&D alignment system is fairly well ingrained, and it makes sense 2/3rds of the folks claim to use it (though I doubt they use all of the whacky implications).  "What's that dribble coming out of your brother's mouth?  Oh crap, he's gone Chaotic Good on us and forgotten his Lawful Neutral…  I knew he shouldn't have started dating that hippy half elf from down at the bar."

Part of the fun of trying to run a by-the-book AD&D campaign would be figuring out how alignment, alignment penalties and lost experience, penance, alignment languages, and the entities of the outer planes, would interact with the world if the DM extended it to its logical conclusions.

In retrospect, it would have been interesting to split out the alignment sub rules - alignment languages, experience penalties for changing alignment, and penance for fixing your alignment.

 Morale and NPC reactions (66%)

The BX morale and reaction system is so much easier to use, this is one I usually house rule.  2/3rds of you disagree.  Its one of those things where I'd probably get used to it if I bit the bullet and forced myself to keep all those percentage factors handy.

Training Costs (31%), Training Times (30%), XP for Magic Items (67%)

XP for Magic Items is a key differentiator that lets AD&D characters do some power-leveling compared to their OD&D brethren; selling items for gold and XP, or claiming the items for XP, is quite a bit different.  I'd use it when playing AD&D by-the-book, but selling items for gold seems to cross over into implied-setting; not every world has magic items shops or auctions, but AD&D clearly expects some level of magic market.

I'm thinking the low adoption of training and training times goes back to the prevalence of tournament modules; I can remember many of them implying that "for this module, ignore the training rules and let folks level up during the adventure".  Great precedent, TSR, no wonder they're so heavily ignored.  I'd use them; they ensure the passage of time in the campaign, giving it sweep and gravitas and making leveling momentous, as well as function as a money drain.

Psionics (29%)

29% of the folks use the psionics system?  Wow - rock on you crazy mo fo's, and watch out for those Thought Leeches and Intellect Devourers.  Body Weapon for the win.

I do tend to allow psionics when we play AD&D, but disallow them at 1st level; players get their psionics roll the first time the character has a death experience or similar trauma (raised from the dead), so if psionics show up to warp the game, it's in the mid-levels when everyone is a bit more powerful, and psionic monsters are interesting opponents.

The Bard (54%), The Monk (70%), Demi-Human Level Limits (70%)

The Monk and Demi-Human results make sense - about 30% of the folks change them up, but most use the rules as written.  However, 54% of the respondents use the AD&D bard!  That's got to be a wink wink vote - the whole conception of the bard as fighter, thief, and then bard doesn't seem practical considering the short life span of a typical campaign.  The 1E Bard is out of here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cooking Bacon In a Dungeon

I love breakfast.  I cook all the weekend breakfasts, and it's usually waffles with fruit and syrup; pancakes or french toast; eggs, meat, OJ, all that stuff on the side.  In the mundane world, we care about what we're having for lunch, for breakfast, what's for dinner.  Days are described by where we went to lunch; periods of the day are measured out in meals.

But I don't want to hear what a character is having for breakfast during the game.  Or lunch.  Or dinner.  What the players need to be talking about is their plan for getting into the dungeon.  Grab gear, and hit the road.  "But I want to buy some things!"  Fine, write the list down, mark off some money, don't do anything stupid like buy 500 vials of holy water, and get back to telling me how you're getting into the dungeon.  We don't need to role play "transactional scenes" like meals and shopping.  I don't care what you're having for breakfast in Greyhawk City.

This isn't meant to sound like a rant (my own players don't always bury me with mundane details) but I raise it as a springboard into a discussion of "DM background authority", "narrative control" and "character advocacy".  Okay, to get it out of the realm of "RPG theory speak", the issue is about this - when is it okay for the DM to speak on behalf of a player character to move things along, and when can the player, to move things along, make decisions regarding  the DM's world?

A simple answer certainly could be, "the DM can never make decisions for the players", but then things won't move along very fast, will they?  And I doubt *anyone* would really play in that style.  Example:  The characters just raised their dead companion and need to spend a few weeks in town healing up; I don't want to go through the painful day-by-day Q&A of what the characters do.  Submitting that nothing exciting is meant to happen, I'll let the time pass quickly by and advance the calendar to an appropriate date.  Assumptions need to be made.  Some DM's will even let players get X,Y and Z done in their down time; does anyone allow players to write little vignettes about what they accomplish in the intervening months?  Like, how does Black Dougal the Thief use his free time to do thief-stuff around town, and rise to prominence in the local thieves guild?  (That's a trick question - Black Dougal is DEAD).  More seriously, does every single transactional scene need to played out in relentless detail?

There's a theory of story telling, role playing, and even improv theater that says what we really care about are peak scenes in a character's life, pivotal scenes where something dramatic happens; no one wants to see how a character brushes his teeth, what kind of toothpaste he uses, did he floss, how does he put his pants on.  D&D is not The Truman Show, and the DM is not an ever-present camera; no one cares.  We want to see the players back in the dungeon mugging some goblins.

Everything changes in the underworld.  A kind of hyper reality sets in, where very moment in the dungeon has tactical import, and we track time down to the smallest of intervals - 10 minute turns, 10 second combat rounds.  Mundane details around food, water, sleeping, praying, memorizing spells, even cooking, become important.  As a DM, I'm suddenly very interested in all of that minutiae, and indeed want them spelled out finely for me.  The ever presence of danger elevates mundane activities to mission critical life saving procedures.  Whether the players are frying bacon for breakfast or chewing hard tack is now an important distinction.

Wilderness travel causes me no end of problems in this area of "advocacy versus narrative control". Our unit of time is on the macro level; we count off hexes in days.  And yet, encounters can happen each day, plunging us from that 10,000 foot view of miles-per-day back into the hyper reality of 10 second combat rounds, caught in a life or death struggle.  What about the in-between?  And where lies the balance of advocacy (player control) and DM narrative control?

Consider this example:  The party is traveling through a wooded 6 mile hex.  Any given hex of woods will have pockets of dense wood, small open glades, streams to cross, ridges to climb, thick brambles to bypass; there are a wide range of obstacles and features in a single square mile of woods, let alone along a 6 mile hike.  When the DM determines a wandering encounter happens with some gryphons, just where does it occur?

I would hazard most of us are okay with the DM quickly determining if the gryphons are flying or landed, hunting or performing some other activity, perhaps the DM rolls some surprise checks and calculates encounter distances to help piece together a mental scene.  All of the data points converge to allow the DM to describe the moment when one of the parties becomes aware of the other one.  Through fiat and in the interests of excitement, the DM chooses to place the encounter when the party is crossing a wide stream, which creates a natural break in the tree cover and exposes a wide section of sky to the circling gryphons.

How much power does the DM have to decide the state of the characters?  This guy over here is halfway across the stream when he hears the gryphon screech, these guys are milling around the bank, that guy over there is taking a leak, that other guy has already crossed and is looking ahead.  There's a balance between springing the interesting scene on the players, part improvised, part generated die rolls, versus the player's expectations, which is that they're always on high alert, scanning the skies, or woods, or ground, or stream, or wherever direction they're being surprised.

Another example, which I absolutely love, is in The Fellowship of the Ring movie, when the hobbits are hanging out on Weathertop, cooking "tomatoes, sausage, and nice crispy bacon".  No PC in their right mind would have a cook fire, with sizzling bacon, in a wilderness crawling with undead.  Characters are mere game pieces, and they're rarely role played to take into account comfort factors unless imposed by the DM… "No, you can't sleep standing up in plate mail".

There's a relationship between the unit of time in the game and the amount of abstraction and player control.  Players control all of their character actions in the combat round; they mostly control their actions in the 10 minute turn (though might establish procedures to fall back on); the traveling day is mostly abstracted to standard procedures; larger units are totally abstract.  As player tactical control goes down, the DM's ability to interpose a situation on the player character necessarily increases.  I could reduce it to a chart like this:

It's one of the many reasons dungeons are the backbone of a game.  There's a much clearer line dividing the adversarial DM role and the role of the players advocating on behalf of what their characters are doing, and the time scale supports that level of description.  The wilderness time scale creates a grey area and often requires a bit of "social contract" to finesse:

I'm going to spring wilderness encounters on you appropriately, based on surprise, distance, party procedures, and so on, and I'll place you guys in appropriate but interesting terrain, and then turn over control of your characters back to you once the scene is set.  You don't bitch and moan that sometimes a monster might stumble by while you're taking a leak, because sometimes you'll stumble upon a monster that's taking a leak… it's a matter of trust.

An alternate approach I've been considering is to change the time scale when a wilderness encounter is about to take place, and give the players direct control earlier in the process.  For instance, when I decide they've come upon a wide steam, let them explain how they're proceeding as typical character actions and go forward from there.  This would slow the game down quite a bit, since I'd want to run a number of "false alarms" each day so the players don't assume an encounter is coming every time we shift into "tactical time".  It would be important to have sub-terrain tables for creating interesting encounter points in various macro hex types.

My current campaign is about to go into an extended wilderness period, so I've been ruminating on how I want to handle daily travel and intermittent encounters this time around.  Oh, the things we do, to strike a balance between detailed character actions and not having to hear what your character had for breakfast that day.

I can see some follow-on posts already; one involves the idea of narrative control in D&D, and do we DMs ever shift it entirely to the players ( like in the new school games); the other involves exploring those mundane details of daily life I casually dismissed.  On topic for this post, though, I'd love to hear how you narrate wilderness travel and handle the shift from travel time to combat time, and shift control of the game back to the players.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sage Advice: The Real World™

Instead of building a new fantasy world from the ground up, why not place your next game in a real world setting and take advantage of earth history?  That's today's topic.  As usual with these other Saturday columns, I'll cull the opinions of some RPG writers and publishers and take a look at the popular positions.  The Real World™ argument reduces to four major points - resonance, accessibility, depth, and aesthetic choice.

Kenneth Hite is a writer I enjoy, and I've heard him postulate this basic rule; if a story can be told in the real world, then set it in the real world first.  Only exclude the real world as the primary choice when it's absolutely impossible.  The first argument supporting the position is resonance.

...My fundamental setting design policy was: "Use Earth." It's better mapped, better documented, and just plain weirder than anywhere else. At least start with Earth. But more importantly, as I've said on half a hundred panels and plenty of times in print, saying "Kragar the Liberator was secretly in the pay of the drow" is just not compelling. Nobody really cares, even if they dutifully read the forty pages on Kragar the Liberator earlier in the book. But saying "Abraham Lincoln was secretly in the pay of the drow" is compelling. The players (and GM) bring something to the table when I say "Abraham Lincoln" or "King Arthur" or "Hitler" that they don't when I say "Kragar the Liberator" or "Kragar the Lost" or "Kragar the Mad."
--Ken Hite (from here:  Setting is My Business)

There's a lot to unpack in that paragraph; Ken's context was pointing out how 40 pages on "Kragar" still create a less compelling story than using a real-world situation with a twist.  No fantasy villain holds a candle to the horrors of Josef Stalin, Adolph Hitler, or Pol Pot.  Our lifetime of experience and education provides a resonance with these figures nearly impossible to achieve in an RPG setting.  I'd argue some novelists might get there with some of their well known creations, but they have a lot bigger canvas with which to work versus the RPG designer.

This leads us into the issue of accessibility.  Basic knowledge of historical figures and time periods is enough to engage with the ideas of the setting, no need to indoctrinate the players with heaps of game world lore to get them up to speed.  "Here's a book to read on the history of Eberron, see you in a few weeks after you've mastered it enough to pick races and classes".  ZZzzzzzzz.  Alternatively:  the reason the Romans built Hadrian's Wall was to hold back the primordial snake men of Northern Scotland; you are all starting as Roman soldiers posted on the frontier.  Got it?  Good.  Let's start rolling up characters.

So we've established that The Real World™ is more accessible than the typical fantasy RPG material, and situations will have more resonance; how does it compare to those pages and pages of background in a typical fantasy campaign setting?  We'll pick on the Forgotten Realms, since there are probably enough RPG books and novels to fill up a series of large book shelves.

From Ken's quote above, we hear that Earth "is better mapped, better documented, and just plain weirder than anywhere else."  The first place I encountered this idea, after starting to read some bloggers, was over at Alexis's place:  Campaigns with Depth.  I promptly went out and ran a Frankish Dark Ages game on the Saxon Frontier, using AD&D rules, and it was richer for it.  If you do get lured in by the Siren's Call of Overdevelopment and Detail, you can't go wrong with The Real World™.  Between the library and the internet, Google Earth and Google Images, there's no lack of material.  Instead of recycling cliché RPG material like the Realms, pull actual situations from history that will replace the clichés with veracity and realism.

The final point of view on using The Real World™ for your D&D setting comes your way courtesy of LOTFP and the Grindhouse Edition Referee's Book.

It is suggested that you use as “normal” a campaign world as possible. If monsters and magic are everywhere in a world, then fear and terror becomes harder to portray.
--James Edward Raggi IV

The idea here is that the contrast between the banality of the mundane world, and the added elements of the fantastic, supports a specific aesthetic ideal.  For Weird Horror, you're striving for fear and terror, but even in a standard fantasy game, integrating Elves and Dwarves and various humanoid groups into the fringes of your alternate Earth creates interest.  It's a variation of the expression, if everything is special, nothing is special; magic and the fantastic have greater impact in a world when they're rare on an alternate Earth.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out some of the counter arguments to using The Real World™.  There's the argument of mastery; the DM will spend too much time researching historical details for veracity, and if they don't, the educated players in the group (who might know more about a given era than the DM) will lose their belief in the game world if it doesn't match their expectations.  The more compelling argument, from my  perspective, is when the constraints of using The Real World™ don't allow the DM to create the types of adventures and locales they want; at some point, the needs of a High Magic, High Fantasy world with air ships, flights of dragons, demon empires, and golden kingdoms of elves creates too much dissonance to exist in a world that followed the patterns of Earth history.

I'll leave the readers with this thought; the argument for using the Real World is that it has resonance, is accessible, and has more depth of detail and history than any RPG book.  Is it any wonder that Tolkien extends such a long shadow over standard fantasy gaming?  One could argue that Middle Earth is so well-read and well known, that it meets the test for many of the reasons put forth for using Earth!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Polls of the People

I had a bunch of completed polls queuing up.  Sit back and enjoy the collective opinions of those opinionated readers that choose to reply.  (There was a recent AD&D rules poll, too, but those results warrant their own post).


Hell yeah! I'd draw a card right now!  (58%), Only as a last resort. (10%) I would not, could not draw a card.  (3%)   It's never come up in a game.(27%)

Let's ignore the poor 27% of disadvantaged gamers that never encountered The Deck.  Here's some advice - go chastise your DM's for depriving you.  Of the remainder, 82% of you would draw a card - gamers like to gamble!  Then again, I have one of those 3% percent folks that would never draw a card, sitting in my home game.


We use it as is; clerics are awesome(40%).  We use mixed groups of high and low undead(24%).  I limit its daily use (like LOTFP)(21%).  We don't use clerics(7%).  House rules - see comments(6%).

The cleric is the best class in D&D, and Turn Undead puts it over the top.  I like the LOTFP approach - converting it into a 1st level spell -  but in the current game we're running mostly AD&D style and clerics get to be totally awesome and dominant.  The AD&D optional rule of mixing undead levels is a good way around the high level clerics.


We use energy drain as written (44%).  We use it, but undead are rare (4%).  We use alternate abilities instead of energy drain(20%).  We've applied a house rule(22%).  We've made Restoration easier to get(4%).  Something else (see comments)(6%) .

Considering how many folks complain about energy drain, it's interesting to see 44% use it as written.  Blog readers seem heavily skewed towards DMs.  I'm in the group that's applied a House Rule (characters can "heal" drained levels with sufficient rest) but it's actually not a great rule for players, so I'll give them a vote to remove it.


Always as first level.  (16%).  A few levels below the other guys.  (8%)  One level below the lowest party member.  (41%)  At the average party level.  (25%)  Same as the highest level guys.  (0%)  Something different.  (8%)

I'm firmly in the "majority", such as it is - the 41% that start folks a level below everyone else.  Areas like this, where the DMG doesn't give a hard and fast rule, tend to have the most spread in the results as folks figure out what works for their table.  A more nuanced approach is something like "during levels 1-3, new guys always start at 1st level, but once the lowest group member is level 4, new guys start a level below the lowest party member".

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Questions that Need Answering

Been away a few days focusing on writing; real posts are returning, but I've got some questions.

Sci-Fantasy Inspiration
Okay, so I listen to metal any time I need some inspiration for Gothic Greyhawk.  For the Black City, with it's roots in weird sci-fantasy, aliens, and Chariots of the Gods, I find myself turning to electronica and synth pop for listening.  What do you listen to for weird sci-fantasy inspiration?  (That's the important question here, but if you read on, I can always use some advice on these other questions, too...)

Rational Dungeons
This could probably be it's own blog post, but I'm very much a top down developer; I've usually got a clear idea what's going on in a given level or sub-level before pencil hits the graph paper.  I read "Let There Be a Method To Your Madness" in The Dragon #10 back when I was a kid and never looked back.

With the Black City, I'm starting to take another approach - using some random generators to get ideas and not make the maps 100% "rational".  Just curious how many folks do the rational dungeon design approach versus wahoo random all the way?

Taking a slight pivot, here are some production related questions for any folks in the know...

MS Publisher for Layout
I'm a Microsoft person via work, so I have access to home-use copies of MS Publisher and Word. These should be fine for simpler game adventures. I expect to use either a one-page-dungeon format or two-page-dungeon (ala Stonehell) - mixing in images, tables and text probably disqualifies MS Word. Are there any other issues with using Publisher versus a professional layout tool (like In Design)?

For instance, will there be gotchas with an MS Pub PDF with Lulu or OBS?  I don't want to shell out $200 for InDesign for a pilot project, but could be forced to learn one of the open source tools if necessary.

Hex maps are being done in Hexographer - I have a question on color. Would you recommend developing grey-scale hex tiles right in Hexographer (and making a grey scale map for a B&W product), or doing it in color and changing it to grey in a tool like GIMP? Similarly, I'm wondering if it's best to do all the text overlays in GIMP as well.

For dungeon maps, I'm looking at making the simple graph paper maps in Gridmapper or Dungeonographer (and apply text in GIMP).

I'll post some updates here and there - blog writing will take a slight hit as I continue throwing the majority of my time at compiling the Black City manuscript.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Black City Bestiary

Kicking off new Black City posts with a Bestiary collection.  It's projected to be an 8 level dungeon so there's a need for a lot of monsters.  Taking a cue from the Dismal Depths (and Evan's place) here's a look at the Bestiary so far.  I've got a list below of future creatures (most of those are strictly dungeon level 4 and deeper beneath the City).  Stats are somewhat "LOTFP style" since that's the core rules I'd use.  I still need to edit these entries and adjust the balance between brevity and detail.

Ape Men of the Black City:
AC as Leather, MV 12, HD 1, Atk - Club 1-6, ML 9, AL C.  Matriarchal white haired proto-humans that wield clubs and throw rocks.  Gangs of male apes patrol areas in the city; females display a creepy attraction to human males.

Berserker Stage 1
AC as Leather, MV 12, HD 1+1, Atk - By Weapon, ML Special, AL C.  Humans infected with the rage worm parasite from polluted water.  Enter a blind rage during combat and never check morale, +2 on to hit rolls due to ferocity.

Berserker Stage 2
AC as Chain, MV 9, HD 3+1, Atk - By Weapon +1, ML 9, AL C.  Prolonged rage worm infection mutates the victim into a larger, musclebound, feral human, with oversized jaws and teeth, that craves human flesh.  Very stealthy, they surprise on a 1-3.

Berserker Stage 3
AC as Chain, MV 9, HD 4+1, Atk - By Weapon +2 or 1d10, ML 10, AL C.  The final stage of rage worm infection causes the misshapen victim to grow larger than man-sized (8-10' tall).  Often build cave-like lairs to larder food and suck bone marrow.

Blood Worms
AC as Leather, MV 12, HD 1+2, Atk 1hp, ML 7, AL N.  Swarms of 3' long worms with hag-fish mouths that infest the Warrens; attach on a successful bite and drain 1hp per round blood for 2-4 rounds before dropping off.  Hinder movement.

AC as Unarmored, MV 1, HD 2 per 10x10 area, Atk Paralysis, ML 12, AL N.  Fungal growth in the Warrens of Decay.  The matrix generates a powerful toxin; terrestrial creatures that touch it must save versus paralysis or be helpless for 1-6 turns.  Croach-Matrix encases paralyzed creatures in 1-10 rounds and slowly dissolves the creature while it's still alive, feeding nutrients into the Warrens.  Croach-Matrix burns.

Demon Wind
AC as Leather, MV 15/30, HD 6, Atk 3d6, ML 9, AL C.  Evil winds from the arctic, offspring of the walker in the wastes.  Deals 3d6 damage from scouring icy wind.  Limited vulnerabilities.

AC as Chain, MV 12, HD 1+1, Atk By weapon or spell, ML 8, AL C.  Servants of the Queen of Air and Darkness, these evil elves explore the ruins on her behalf.  Typically carry sleep and charm spells, icy rapiers and cold ray wands that do 1-6 damage per level of the Dokkalvar.  Immune to sleep, charm, and cold attacks.

AC as Leather, MV 6, HD 8, Atk 2-16, ML 12, AL C.  Gjenganer that cannibalize other Gjenganer (see below) can become Draugur, ghouls capable of growing to twice their size and capable of delivering massive slams.  When first encountered, they will appear man-sized and grow during combat.  Draugur devour the slain.  Have standard undead immunities.

AC as Chain, MV 6, HD 1, Atk - By weapon or spell, ML 8, AL C.  Deformed race of evil dwarves from Nidavellir that seek gems and magic.  Many of them can cast spells.  Can become invisible at will.

Frost Gremlins
AC as Leather, MV 6, HD 1-1, Atk - By weapon, ML 7, AL C.  Vicious goblinoids spawned from rodents dunked into the ichor of the severed Joten head.  Cruelty to other creatures is matched only by their desire to capture and dunk more rats.  Resist cold, hampered by daylight (-1 on to-hit rolls).

Furry Snake
AC as Leather, MV 9, HD 2, Atk - bite, 1-4 + poison, ML 7, AL N.  Adapted for life in the city; always attack first.  Hunted by frost goblins (since snakes hunt rats).  Save vs poison or die.

Giant Furry Snake
AC as Chain, MV 12, HD 4, Atk - 2 bites, 1-4/1-4 + Poison, ML 8, AL N.  These 10' long furred sea snakes hunt aquatic mammals on the islands; sometimes enter the ruins.  Save vs Poison or die.

Gjenganer (Hungry Dead)
AC as Leather, MV 12, HD 2, Atk - 2 claws and bite, 1-3/1-3/1-3, ML 9, AL C.  Humans and demi-humans that die within the dungeons must Save vs Death or rise in 1-6 turns as Gjenganer, hungry dead fueled by the energies of the Dark Goddess trapped in the depths of the dungeon.  Intelligent; some newly risen Gjenganer don't realize they're dead.  Driven to cannibalism by the urges of the Dark Goddess.  Have standard undead immunities.  See also Draugur, Hungry Bones, Moaning Shambler.

Glass Spider
AC as Chain & Shield, MV 12, HD 2, Atk - bladed forelegs, 1-4/1-4, ML 11, AL N.  Scuttling automatons that serve the Overmind and maintain the Warrens of Decay.  Insert corpses into the Croach-Matrix to fuel the Warrens.  Front legs have retractable blades.

Headless Servitor
AC as Plate, MV 9, HD 4, Atk 2 claws, 1 bite, 1-6/1-6/2-12 ML 12, AL N.  Victims abducted by the Winged Terrors are taken to the Tower of Pain to have their heads removed; the bodies are fitted with fungal symbiote units.  Surgical alterations include gigantic stomach mouths, armor plated implants, various claws, hooks, and bladed implements attached to their arms.

Hungry Bones
AC as Leather, MV 6, HD 1, Atk - 2 claws and bite, 1-2/1-2/1-3, ML 12, AL C.  Moaning Shamblers that persist long enough lose their flesh and sinews, but not the hunger; they become ghoulish skeletons.  Unintelligent.  Have standard undead immunities.  Take minimal damage from non-blunt weapons.

AC as Unarmored, MV 9, HD 1, Atk By Weapon, ML 10, AL N.  Tall, slender creatures with jackal heads.  Most are spell casters and can cast magic user spells; levels higher than 1 are possible.

AC as 7, MV 9/18, HD 1/2, Atk 1-3, ML 6, AL C.  Flying cousins of the frost gremlins, they use small sized makeshift weapons.  Five or more mites close together create a chaotic aura that reflects spells, critical misses, and fouls mechanical gear.

Moaning Shambler
AC as Unarmored, MV 6, HD 2, Atk - 2 claws and bite, 1-3/1-3/1-3, ML 12, AL C.  Gjenganer that can't maintain a flesh diet undergo rigor mortis, lose their inhuman intelligence, and begin to stiffly shuffle like traditional zombies.  Have standard undead immunities.

Mutates (Beast-Men)
AC as Leather, MV 12, HD 2+1, Atk Varies, ML 9, AL N.  Various animal hybrid humanoids dwelling below the Warrens.  Roll for type:
1-2 Cat People (claws and bite 1-4/1-4/1-4)
3-4 Dog Men (bite 1-8)
5-6 Rat Men (bite 1-4, 1 in 20 chance of disease, stealthy).

AC as Unarmored, MV 12, HD 2, Atk By Weapon, ML 7, AL N.  Primitive cave men living in the Warrens, they survive by following the leadership of She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Plastical Mark I
AC as Leather, MV 12, HD 3, Atk By Weapon, ML 12, AL N.  Plastical, from Plastic-Alien, are rubbery humanoids with bulbous heads and large black eyes.  They're fabricated by the city's machinery as workers.  The Mark I often carries a heavy wrench (treat as club) and can be seen repairing doors and dungeon fixtures.  (Obviously, I love me some Castle Amber with these Plasticals).

Plastical Mark II
AC as Chain, MV 12, HD 4, Atk Squeeze, 1d10 acid, ML 12, AL N.  The Mark II was designed for hard to reach ducts and tunnels; it can stretch 20', envelope a target, and secrete an acid; roll open doors to break it's grip.

Plastical Mark III
AC as Plate, MV 12, HD 5, Atk By Weapon or Lightning, ML 12, AL N.  Mark III's were designed to work on electrical equipment and glow faintly; thrice per day they can fire a 3d6 lightning bolt.

Plastical Mark IV
AC as Leather, MV 12, HD 2, Atk Charm, ML 12, AL N.  The telepathic Mark IV can attempt one charm person per round; in this way the Overmind manipulates the various humanoid factions throughout the dungeons.

AC as Chain, MV 12, HD 4, Atk By Weapon, 2 attacks per round, ML 12, AL C.  Centuries ago, members of the Lost Legion XVIII discovered the Overmind beneath the City.  Some of their consciousnesses were transferred forcibly into human-like plastical bodies and put into stasis.  They've been revived to function as elite guards (Praetorians).

Sub-Humans (Morlocks)
AC as Chain, MV 9, HD 2, Atk By Weapon, ML 10, AL C.  Devolved Neanderthals that live beyond the Warrens, pale skinned and sensitive to bright light. Desirous of humanoid flesh.

AC as Leather, MV 24, HD 1+1, Atk Swoop, 1-6 + Stun, ML 10, AL N.  Bat-like elementals of electrical energy.  When touched, save vs paralysis to avoid being stunned through end of next round.  Harmed only by magic.

Winged Terror
AC as Leather, MV 12/15, HD 3, Atk Special, ML 7, AL C.  Alien creatures, half moth, half crustacean, half fungus.  Abduct humanoids for unearthly experiments.  Attack with otherworldly weaponry - paralysis rays, lightning guns, stun nets - unuseable by humans.  Can drone once per day to create 30' sleep effect.

Regular Monsters:
These are things in the standard bestiaries that still need to be added:

Northman Viking variants (Bandits, Nobles - Hersir with Huskarlar, NPC Party, Traders, Veterans).  "Dire" animals infected with rage worm.  The Warrens are full of giant insects of all stripes, vicious rodents, and fungi monsters.  Traditional necromantic undead are not unknown - wights, wraiths, et al.  Some automatons and golems (besides plasticals) need to be created.


Automatons (Golems)
Caustic Ooze
Dimensional Terror
Dreaming Brain
Radiated Mutants
Insectoid Hive Creatures
Machine Mind (Boss Overmind)
Mordant Vapor
Reconstituted Alien Terror (the Resurrected)
Servitors of the Pool
Thing in the Pool
Vegetal Controller and Pod People
Waking Nightmares


Alien Ghost
Alpha Predators
Avatar of the Dark Goddess
Denizen of the Obelisk
Floaters from Beyond
Space Devil (from the Palladium)
Star Demon
Walking Worms


Friday, November 18, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk, Game Report 47 - Ravenloft Finale

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-6: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-5 (1): Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6 (3):  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-5:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-6:  Z
Konstantine, Magic User-4: Smitty

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-5 (3)
Donavich, Cleric-4
Boris, Druid-1
Gregor, Ranger-1

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft

Boba Fett died like a chump, Darth Maul got chopped in half while gloating, and Strahd got wasted by Dispel Evil before rolling a single attack die in his own moment of truth.  No matter, the surviving vampires in Castle Ravenloft have been able to wage a guerilla war against the invading adventurers, dragging the module on for… 6 months!  And now it's finally over.

The important part of the session began when the group started sweeping the southern crypts the following day; the Paladin would pause momentarily before each crypt, and use his Detect Evil to determine if there was evil dead lurking on the far side.  After detecting an evil presence behind one of the first new crypt doors, the noisy group spent time discussing what to do right there in the hall, then decided to finish sweeping the long line of crypts in the current passage.  By the time they finished the sweep, the evil presence was gone from the other side of the crypt; this caused no small amount of consternation.

While they groused about this turn of events, the ranger, Gregor, noticed the sound of bats, skittering and moving along the ceiling, just to the edge of the party's globe of continual light.  "This can't be good".  The druid cast Speak with Animals and learned the evil ones were forcing the bats to move in on the characters - there were hundreds of them just beyond the light, waiting for the signal.

The Paladin felt the evil presences closing in.  "That's right outside the door!  Man, this is a big fracking signal.  They're in the room with us".  Copious Aliens quotes as the Paladin detected multiple evil presences moving into attack position just outside the light sphere.

The decisive moment went like this:  the characters knew that once the bats attacked, they wouldn't be able to cast spells because of the fluttering swarm.  Mordecai made a fateful decision to burn the Dispel Evil scroll (Dispel Evil creates a radius around the Cleric and lasts an entire turn).  The party made a crucial initiative roll, and won it over the incoming bats.  Mordecai cast the spell.

From multiple directions, vampires screamed out of the darkness baring fangs, but then they would hit the invisible globe of Dispel Evil and burst into flames.  Gertrude's skull rolled to rest near the character's feet, a pair of vampire fangs sticking out of the top jaw.  Top Hat Man's hat fluttered to the ground, the rest of his body reduced to ash.  Cheers from around the table as the vampires missed their Saves.  The last standing vampire was Helga, who got a shot in on Gregor (killing him), but who ended up fleeing the carnage in mist form.  The druid cast Faerie Fire on the fleeing cloud and the group followed it through the dark crypts back to the starting point - Helga's crypt was the first one they had found!  She was cornered and destroyed.  All the vampires left in Castle Ravenloft were part of the ambush, and they were all destroyed.  Total party win.

The only other battle worth mentioning involved clearing a demonic presence from one of the castle rooms.  After entering, it looked like a normal office, albeit with dark shadows beneath the furniture and bed.  Seriously dark shadows.  The Paladin concentrated… there - under the bed is the demonic presence.  Someone handed him the gold coin with a Continual Light spell on it, and he carefully rolled it under the bed from a safe distance.

Immediately, the bed exploded upward as a Shadow Demon burst upright, splintering the bed to avoid the cursed Continual Light.  The magic users called out spells, and the Paladin side-stepped, creating a clear path and jabbing at the Demon with his magic spear.  Mister Moore's Lightning Bolt had no effect on the inky monster, but the clerics had been sitting on Light spells and cast them at the creature's eyes.  (Unbeknownst to the players, Light spells do fireball damage to a Shadow Demon).  They watched in delight as it screamed in agony from the Light spells, and Leonidas quickly finished it with his spear.

That effectively ended combat operations in Castle Ravenloft; I don't mind "scooping" when the monsters are beaten, and there's no need to play out the details of bashing a few zombies skulking in closets and that kind of stuff.

When we resume, we'll be skipping a few months of game time to ensure all injuries are fully cleared, the winter will be waning down, and the group can start their next thing in the early spring.  They've been discussing options via email during the week.  So far it looks like they'll do a handful of mundane things in Barovia during the downtime, such as rebuilding the church, fixing up the castle, and patrolling the valley.  When the mountain passes clear, they'll send a group back to the dwarf hold of Stone Gate to open up trade, gather news about the lowlands, and then press on to find Mordecai's witch and have a reckoning.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Story Matters, But Loot Pays the Bills

My sweet spot for adventures are site-based locations with minimal overarching plot.  Those types of adventures let me supply any number of plot hooks or other forms of information for the players, tailored to my campaign, and then run the location like a sandbox.  That's my agenda; to enable a player-driven game.  More often than not, excellent stories emerge from the intersection of player decisions and the reactions by the inhabitants of the setting; the end result is greater than the sum of the parts, and endlessly entertaining to me.

It does raise the question, what motivates players to choose a certain adventure or follow a course of action in the first place?  A rational approach would go like this:  players "win" through level advancement; the fuel for leveling is centered on gold as XP; therefore, players responding to that incentive will choose adventures with the best risk-to-reward ratio.  The Autarch guys have a detailed post on the economic argument for player choice in D&D.  There've been a lot of posts about sandbox motivations, but one of my favorite is Zak's rogues in the sandbox.  Amoral looters will plan their own capers and are best suited for the player driven game.  Some of the more humorous terms I've seen on the interwebs include labeling adventurers as "murder hobos", or playing "mug the goblin".

Rather than weighing economic factors, don't players usually just follow the most interesting story and hope the gold piece fairy rewards them at the end of the day?  The DM preps something, the DM offers some intriguing plot hook, the players say, "That sounds cool", and off they go.  Outside of the large, multi level mega dungeon, or the wilderness hex crawl, most short adventures are chosen on the basis of story, and not rational economic calculations of risk versus reward.  Theoretically, the DM could prepare a lot of different small adventures, and try to create that same degree of transparency around risk versus reward, so an economic value can be attached to the plot hooks, but I'll believe someone is doing it when I see it.

Thus, there's a disconnect between the reason most adventures are chosen (story) and the reward model for playing (XP for loot).  I've bounced up against it a lot of times in the past few weeks as I discussed how a "Wide Area Sandbox" game would work as a weird fantasy setting; the plot hooks in that game would be story-centric - they consist of journal entries by a previous adventurer priest - so the players would make choices mostly based on story and not risk-reward.  Any loot gained is incidental.

I'm not the only person reacting to the dissonance.  Mister LOTFP himself alluded in a recent post that he'd consider dropping the level or XP system in a future LOTFP release (and my head promptly exploded); as LOTFP adventures evolve to invoke weird horror adventures in more of a quasi-real world setting than bog standard fantasy, the idea of having to dole out 300,000gp in loot to a mid-level party is jarring.  I get it, I really do.  Jack's new blog* had a follow-on post, suggesting that weird fantasy D&D keeps the level system but replaces gold-for-XP.

I don't have a clear takeaway yet; my gut tells me "D&D is Always Right", and folks are bouncing up against these problems because we're straying outside of the game's sweet spot with some of these niche campaign concepts.  Gold as XP solves many issues, and reinforces an interesting paradigm of exploration and problem solving.  It's also quantitative and doesn't require any subjective role playing rewards or  (barf) story awards.  So folks might say that running D&D in a quasi-real-world setting is a horse you can only ride so far without performing major surgery on the advancement system.  I disagree.

Real world history is full of plunder, loot, and riches - Teutonic Knights and Templars growing rich on trade and plunder, Roman generals building vast wealth conquering the provinces and returning home for their triumphs.  Even the early modern period has the pillaging of the New World and fighting over ships laden with Spanish gold.  What's wrong with the characters in that kind of game being the ones that win vast riches and move the dial of history with fortunes that bring even kings knocking at their door?  That's right, there's nothing wrong with it.  So the problem comes back to story and game focus.  If you're trying to run a game where the characters do "heroic" things, like stop evil cults or keep the Great Old Ones from returning, I hear there's not much money in that line of work.  One of the big differences between D&D and let's say, Call of Cthulhu, is the moral factor of "saving the world" is a clear imperative in Cthulhu gaming.  Returning home with wagons of plunder isn't really the point of the game.

Let's not get so engrossed in story or literary genre emulation that we lose the foundational elements of the game; otherwise we're just promulgating Call of Cthulhu with Magic Users and Clerics.  I'm right at that edge myself; my "elevator pitch" for the Library of de la Torre describes it as a mix of Solomon Kane, The Three Musketeers, and Lovecraft Country.  But the looting stays.

*Tales of theGrotesque and Dungeonesque…  looks good so far, go check it out.  You may remember his Flavors of Fear PDF from a few months ago with various Weird Fantasy setting ideas.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Systematization of Monsters

Development on the Black City is back on the front burner, and one of the first topics to think about is the concept of the bestiary.  I had been doing a mix of creating new monsters, lifting from Lovecraft and pulp horror, and retrofitting the standard monsters.  I'm creating a lot of new and alternate monsters, and have the chance to revisit the problems incurred by non-standard bestiaries.

The area beneath the Black City is a megadungeon, and one of my agendas is to enable a player-driven exploration process.  This means the players can gather enough information about the environment, through rumors, scouting, role playing, and player knowledge, to plan their own expeditions.  The threat level is part of that information landscape.  I'm intrigued by this approach since it contrasts with the ways I've traditionally ran level-based games, which is to ensure the plot hooks for upcoming games mostly lead to worthy challenges.

For that reason, there's a cogent argument behind using a standard bestiary in mega dungeons and hex crawls.  Bestiaries like the Monster Manual banalize monsters to a degree (to quote Noisms), but in a mega dungeon, the player knowledge about the relative toughness of upcoming monsters enables planning.  Zak had a recent post that mused on a similar value in the published works - bottom of this post - pointing out the value of goal-setting through access to a Monster Manual; players can flip open the book and say, "Someday, we're going to kill Demogorgon."

I'm a proponent of running D&D with a weird horror approach, but recognize that the weird horror campaign has a different design goal; it's concerned with genre emulation and sacrifices transparency for mystery.  LOTFP leads the way in taking D&D to the weird horror space.  Consider the monster advice in The Grindhouse edition:  use fewer monsters, make them the centerpieces of the adventure, make them unique, unnatural and terrifying, and follow a "less is more" approach; those are all good choices for achieving a specific tone invoking the unknown and keeping players off balance.  One of the things I struggled with when I took time off from the project was the dissonance between the needs of a mega dungeon versus the Weird Horror aesthetic; more often than not, choices that made a mega dungeon sustainable for a campaign were shifting the tone towards gonzo.

<There's still a pure weird horror setting in my writing queue, it's just not going to be the Black City.  The Library of de la Torre idea solves many of these problems by making the adventure sites distinct, remote, and unknown, aligning itself closer to the weird horror literary genre.>

Bypassing the bestiary for a moment, consider that there's another dungeon conceit that can support a transparent, player-driven game and achieve the same result.  It's the idea that Dungeon Level = Party Level = Monster Level.  A similar thing can be done with the wilderness hex system - the deeper into a wilderness area, the more dangerous become the encounters.  Even if the monsters are mostly new or adapted, players can still expect dungeon level 3 to be more dangerous than level 2, and so on.  The DM should mix the threat levels a bit, so there are easier encounters and much more difficult encounters (bosses).  Unique monsters will still keep the players on their toes, but the overall scheme gives them some foundation for planning excursions.  Of course, I come back to this thought:  Any kind of systemization of the ecosystem creates sufficient predictability that violates the Weird aesthetic.  Just saying.

In case you missed it, Roger over at Roles, Rules and Rolls had put together an entertaining chart to give new players the chance to gauge a monster's threat level in the absence of a standard bestiary; you can see it here (Old One-Armed Man's Monster Guide).  A chart like that, with a crusty Viking as the speaker instead, would be totally awesome as a future Black City handout.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


A little Saturday introspection calls for a quick run down on what's cooking in Beedo's world.

Gothic Greyhawk
The campaign continues to roll weekly.  While the players grind day-by-day through the crypts of Ravenloft in wintry Barovia, big things are brewing in the wider world.  The spring thaw will see the resumption of the zombie war in the Earldom of Sterich, and I've got the various factions and cabals involved with the "Race for the Demonomicon" ready to go when word reaches the civilized lands that the Horn of Iggwilv has been discovered at last.

The Black City
It's alive!  I've been really sidetracked this summer with our adoption - integrating an older child from Ethiopia and assimilating him into family life is no mean chore, and I'll leave it at that.  Blogging about gaming has been a welcome outlet.

That being said, I've reorganized my headspace and am ready to kick the Black City back into gear.  When I set out earlier this year, I really wanted to make it a weird horror setting, but the needs of a megadungeon ecosystem quickly pushed it into gonzo, and that aesthetic began to discourage me.  Now I'm ready to embrace the gonzo.  Editing the manuscript and working on turning the dungeon levels into e-files starts this weekend.

The Library of de la Torre
Part of the reason I'm content with the Black City as a gonzo place is because I see the excellent potential for the Wide Area Sandbox as a "serious" horror setting; I've been diligently reading stuff on the 30 Years War and the early modern period, and compiling ideas into the brainstorming notebook; it's like Lovecraft Country meets The Three Musketeers.

Halls of the Erlking
I've wanted to build a fantastical and whimsical dungeon for a while - something where monsters have alternate origins and non-naturalistic explanations, and fairy tale logic applies to the world.  I have promises from the wife and kids to start a family D&D game sometime in the next year, so I'm slowly putting ideas into the notebook for a fairy-themed dungeon that should appeal to wifey, my daughter, and the younger kiddo - I'm calling it the Halls of the Erlking.  It's part Lord Dunsany, part Arthurian legend and chanson de geste.

I don't have expectations of making significant progress on the last two projects any time soon, but it gives me a clear place to park ideas that don't fit into the Black City without derailing me; for instance, I had been seriously thinking about stripping down the Black City and rolling it into the Library project, but in the end, it's better to stop worrying and learn to love the dungeon.

One big decision is whether I pull back on blogging a little; a daily post has been my aspiration, but 3 posts a week might make more sense for maximizing time to work on projects.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Gothic Greyhawk, Game Report 46

Cast of Characters:
Mordecai, a Cleric-6: Adam
Forlorn, an Elf-5 (1): Bo
Mister Moore, Magic User-6: Mike
Shy, a Fighter-6 (3):  JR
Leonidas the Paladin-5:  Nogal
Digit, the Elf Thief-6:  Z
Konstantine, Magic User-4: Smitty

Phat Kobra, a Dwarf-5
Grumble the Smug, Halfling-5 (3)
Donavich, Cleric-4
Boris, Druid-1
Gregor, Ranger-1

AD&D 1E, I6 Ravenloft

We had some new characters join this week!  Smitty came early and rolled up a magic user, since the group was low on artillery; all of the player characters are 5th and 6th level, so I'm letting new player characters come in at 4th level.  (Speaking of which, that's a great idea for a poll - "When new players join the game, what level do you start them?")  The new guys include Konstantine, Smitty's level 4 Magic User, and a pair of henchman - Boris, a Druid, and Gregor, a Ranger.

Konstantine lived in a mountain village just beyond the valley; now that the curse was lifted, the vampires were straying into the surrounding mountains as well, and a child was snatched from his village.  He came to Barovia with a pair of compatriots looking for revenge; after Mordecai made a rousing speech in the village square that he wouldn't come down out of the castle until all the vampires were dead, Konstantine offered his services and became the latest member of BK Inc., the group's adventuring company.

Supplies were gathered, and Forlorn succumbed to the siren song of the Deck of Many Things.  There, in a quiet alley, he secretly pulled it out, shuffled the cards, and chose to take two of them.  The first one was… The Flames.  (The DM shuffled the physical deck back up, and gave it to the player to cut and draw again). The second card was also… The Flames.  Then the Deck disappeared.

Somewhere in the world, a terrible rivalry has been born, as Forlorn either has two nasty enemies, or one really really bad one.  I'll leave that for a future chapter; what fun for the DM.

In the early afternoon, the group returned to the castle.  After Mordecai's "rousing" speech that either they'd all die, or the vampires would be destroyed, it was appropriate for the henchman to make gut checks (morale rolls), but no on chose to cash out and leave.  At the castle, the group followed their normal plan of climbing the wall of the inner keep to enter via the second floor.  Leonidas detected evil from within the room; the group cut down the dark curtains blocking the way in, to see a roomful of zombies.  Note: zombies aren't evil, so the players missed an important clue; they pressed into the room to engage the zombies.  Once the heavy fighters were committed, the two vampires clinging to the rafters as bats dropped down near Mordecai for a quick attack; their goal was to drain the cleric and split in gaseous form - a surgical strike.  The sun was low in the western sky (on the far side of the castle) so there was no risk of direct sunlight streaming into the room.

The characters were furious as the two vampires went gaseous and departed the combat; once Mordecai was knocked down a little in experience, they wouldn't have to fear his Turn Undead ability in future skirmishes, and now time is on their side.  The characters quickly destroyed the shambling zombies.  (The lead vampire, Top-Hat Man, doesn't actually know the characters can Detect Evil; for him, it appears that Leonidas can tell whenever there's undead around, so the vampires herded the zombies into the room to create some interference and "noise".  It totally worked for him.)

Nonplussed, the characters headed back down to the crypts, carefully made their way back to the Iron Golem room, and tested their theory of the Paladin's Protection from Evil vs the golems.  The golems were hedged out by the holy power, and the players discovered the golems were programmed to attack only for 5 rounds, then retreat.  They had effectively outsmarted the death trap.

A lot of game time was spent figuring out all the workings of the magic obstacles in the room; there was a magic brazier, special gems being carried by the golems, a trapped chest, a magic hourglass.  They experimented enough to figure it all out, but there was a funny moment with the chest.  They picked the lock, but still managed to set off a sleeping gas trap on the large brass chest, despite using a Find Traps spell to learn the chest was trapped.  Three of the characters became long term hindrances as they sunk into drug-induced comas, forcing the group to build improvised stretchers and devote manpower to hauling them.

The good news is, in the chest they found… a Deck of Many Things!  Deck number two.  The other item was a clerical scroll with Dispel Evil and Flame Strike.  After the way they used Dispel Evil to nuke Strahd, I'm pretty sure they'll rename Dispel Evil as "Kill the Top-Hat Man".  He deserves it.

They ended the night with some additional exploration.  Beyond the golem room were a pair of thrones on a balcony overlooking a dim chamber down below, filled with murky water.  The theater of pain.  Chains and hooks hung from the vaulted ceiling, and various torture devices thrust up from the filthy water.  Leonidas detected vague evil from all over the room, perhaps lurking just beneath the water, and it seemed that any time the characters weren't directly looking in the room, there was a quick splash or the sound of something sloshing in the water.  They saw ripples and disturbances wherever the splash was heard.  It was enough to unnerve them and they chose to pass.

Besides, they knew this sunken area probably hooked up with some jail cells they discovered a few weeks ago through a slide trap, and they knew a dozen Wights were lurking in the area; that's all they needed, to be attacked by Wights hiding beneath the water.

Another door out of the golem room led to a long line of stairs that went up to a higher basement or dungeon level; the stairs ended in a stone façade, but a search by the demihumans uncovered a secret door mechanism.  But Leonidas cautioned them about opening it; even through the stone door, a palpable, demonic evil radiated from within the room, some chaotic spawn from the Abyss itself.  Not willing to tussle with a demon, they chose to call it a night and made their way out of the crypts, up to the second floor study that granted access to Strahd's old treasure vault, where they set up a defensible camp and prepare for the long night.

See you next time!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Monsters as Plastic Army Men

An approach to running a site based adventures

I guess they don't make the mine sweeper guy anymore...
When we were growing up, my neighbor had a huge collection of those plastic army men - USA versus Germany.  We'd always watch "war week" on after-school TV, annually viewing The Longest Day, and then we'd bust out his Guns of Navarone playset and wage plastic war.

Some of you guys were kids in the 70's and remember that kind of stuff; sorting a huge pile of those guys and figuring out how you were going to attack or defend.  You'd determine where the assault craft would hit the beach, where to put the crazy guys with the bayonets over their heads, and where to stick the mine sweepers.  (Mine sweepers were always out front; they didn't have guns, so they had to run up to the enemy and club them with their metal detectors).  Even back then, I can remember we "matured" to using d6 dice with those plastic army men battles to figure out who actually got shot.

There's a process to setting up your army of plastic guys - you dump them out of the box, sort all the suckish binocular guys in one spot, the awesome machine guys over here, the prone snipers, the flame thrower guys, the tanks.  And then you make little dirt hills and foxholes, you draw a line and say "this is the ocean and the beach, and here is where the boats (amphibious assault vessels -higgins boats) are dropping the guys off…"

The way we used to play with the plastic army men is pretty much a metaphor for running a dungeon; it's definitely my approach to running any kind of site-based adventure.  I build a roster of the forces available in the dungeon, keep track of who's still alive in between games, and add reinforcements where appropriate.  Game prep consists of determining how the monsters are reacting to what's going on in the dungeon, based on the monster's intelligence, culture, outlook, morale, and so on.

In the Greyhawk game I'm running, the past few months of Ravenloft have been one improvised game of mayhem after another; we've had Strahd fireballing houses, stomping the village flat with a conjured Earth Elemental, I've had vampires ambushing the party in the streets at night, setting up and luring them into death traps, all sorts of glorious attempts at carnage, none of which appeared in the written module.

It's easy to do - just make a list to compile your forces, and each time the players apply a beatdown, the surviving (intelligent) monsters regroup in the dark warrens beneath the castle and figure out how they're going to strike back.  It's advice that goes right back to the roots of the hobby.

If you don't run a site-based adventure this way, I recommend you try it.  Forget about what the module author says, no plan survives contact with the enemy.  The moment adventurers enter the dungeon, all bets are off.  Monsters move around, they react to the incursion, some places are abandoned, guards in other places are doubled, new traps are set.  This is even more true in the megadungeon environment.  The monsters are your little green plastic army people - put them where you want to put them.  Every game night is 1976 all over again, setting up the Fortress Navarone and making sure that this time, the beach invaders won't make it past the obstacles.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Coming to terms with AD&D

Alex over at the Autarch blog had this interesting perspective on Gary Gygax, and it's been rolling around my head now for a few weeks:

I once had the pleasure of lunch with John Zuur Platten, the business partner of Flint Dille, Gary Gygax’s old friend and collaborator. Through Flint, John had had the chance to learn much about Gary Gygax and the origins of D&D. John explained to me that “to understand D&D, you have to understand that Gary thought like an insurance actuary. D&D is fantasy fiction through actuarial science.”

Re-reading the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide, the truth of this claim becomes obvious. Previously inexplicable rules – like the disease tables, or potion mixing – clicked. Gary wrote those rules because he wanted to account for the actuarial risk of living in a fantasy world. Gygaxian Naturalism exists in a like manner...

"(AD&D) is fantasy fiction through actuarial science."  Take a moment and flip through the 1E DMG or Monster Manual and the truth of the statement does indeed become evident - both of those books are practically textbooks or field guides for quantifying and classifying life in a fantasy world, reducing incidents, demographics, and ranges of results to percentages and tables.  This view really helps me get a handle on why AD&D 1E holds such baroque charm.  It's why I refer back to the books so often, regardless of which version of D&D I'm running at the time; it's implied setting and rule books all-in-one.

I recently came to terms with another aspect of AD&D, as well.  I used to hold this belief pattern:  D&D combat is abstract and not a simulation, so there's no value in adding rules and game elements to enhance simulation - therefore, weapon vs AC, weapon speed, and various new combat rules, don't improve the game.  (Looking at the AD&D poll on the right, lots of folks have ignored some of these rules as well).

These days my view is more nuanced; D&D combat isn't a simulation, but adding tactical complexity in AD&D creates interesting choices for gamers.  Providing interesting choices is a different end goal than enabling combat simulation.  Rules like weapon speeds, segments, weapon vs AC, etc, look a little different when you treat them as rules that create tactical choices; they give folks wanting more of a war game experience more knobs and levers to control.

Sometimes we speak of "authorial voice" and those AD&D books certainly have a unique style (Gygaxian prose).  Taking it a step deeper, its useful to see how Gygax's background and passions (actuarial science and war gaming) created the big differences between OD&D and the AD&D books he penned solo.

One thing I'm not familiar with is why ability scores were changed so dramatically between OD&D and AD&D.  Why was the 4d6 drop the lowest score adopted as the primary ability score generation mechanism?  I'd be grateful if any AD&D scholars can point me to old Dragon columns or online sources that might discuss the reasons for the change.

My weekly game continues to pull in more AD&D into Moldvay BX and Labyrinth Lord by using Goblinoid's AD&D-like supplement, the Advanced Edition Companion.  I'm hoping to do a ton of the classic AD&D modules as we continue the Gothic Greyhawk campaign (Tsojcanth, the Giants and Drow series are somewhat on the horizon), so we'll either continue to convert monsters back to BX style, or make the switch over to AD&D entirely.

I get the sense most old school bloggers play the more stripped down games, like OD&D or Moldvay BX (or the clone equivalents).  But I'd wager many of you still get wrapped up in the "baroque charm" of those AD&D books as well.  Go on, you can talk about it-

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mythic Monday: China Mieville's Slake Moth

At one point over at Cyclopeatron's place, I came across a link to an interesting China Mieville interview where he talked about a fascination with AD&D's bestiaries:

I use AD&D-type fascination with teratology in a lot of my books, and I have the original Monster Manual, and the Monster Manual 2, and the Fiend Folio. I still collect role-playing game bestiaries, because I find that kind of fascination with the creation of the monstrous tremendously inspiring, basically.

Typically the Mythic Monday columns focus on some aspect of myth or folklore, and how to adapt it for your D&D game; this week's column is interesting because it involves an item from D&D that apparently showed up in a literary work; let's bring something back.

One of Mieville's most fascinating creatures is the Slake Moth from Perdido Street Station; a horrifying predator, it unfolds hypnotic wings that transfix a victim in place, allowing the larger-than-man-sized moth to slip forward and feed on the victim's thoughts, draining the psyche through a long slobbering tongue until the victim is a mindless vegetable.  The Slake Moths in Perdido Street Station are terrifying, but the way the criminals of Bas-Lag attempt to exploit them is even more horrible; feeding on dreams and psyches, the milk of the moths can be used to create a powerful street drug.  The criminal underworld brought the moths in to breed them and generate the dream-drug.  The horror begins when the moths escape and terrorize the city by night.

The Gloomwing

I couldn't help but notice a more than passing semblance with the Gloomwing from 1983's Monster Manual 2; the Gloomwing is an aggressive predator moth that also uses hypnotic wings (the gloomwing's wings cause Confusion); meanwhile the moth slips forward, weakening the victim with pheromones and then using the corpse to gestate the moth's larvae (which eventually become the Tenebrous Worm, also in MM2).  You have to wonder how much the Slake Moth's mind draining was inspired by the Mind Flayer and this iconic image from the back of D1:

It's pretty cool to think an obscure monster (the Gloomwing) from an old bestiary inspired one of the modern day's rising authors in the realm of Weird Fiction; keep your eyes open, we may see even more monsters from AD&D find their way back into the realms of popular fiction.

Of course, we D&D players can borrow some of these ideas back.  Taking a page from Perdido Street Station, the Gloomwing can be used as bizarre urban predators that drop out of the night sky to carry off victims from the city's darkened streets.  The real terror is waiting back in the moth's lair, where any would-be exterminators would have to deal with the Tenebrous Worm back in the nest.

Incidentally, a Dragon Magazine (#352) had an article featuring the city of Bas-Lag and various monsters from Mieville's world, including the Slake Moth; the 3.x version bumped the hit dice to 13, and had abilities to represent the psychic draining (mind rot), the hypnotic wings, and the way the moths induced nightmares while flying high above the city (essentially "fattening the meals" before feeding).  One could easily beef up the Gloomwing by strengthening the hypnotic effect of the wings, bump up the HD a little, and give it the ability to drain psyche like a mind-flayer and you'd have your own slake moth.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Making a Deck of Many Things in 15 minutes

Deck of Many Things - fast and easy

Here's a quick and easy way to make your own Deck of Many Things in about 15-20 minutes.  (First off, thanks to Jim from the Carjacked Seraphim blog for pointing me to the WOTC site for an old PDF from 2006 - you can find it here:  WOTC DOMT link.  About halfway down is something called Deck of Many Things download with a pdf of cards from the original deck).  I printed the PDFs in a minute, borrowed a glue stick from the kiddos, smeared glue all over a couple pieces of chipboard, and was cutting cards within a few minutes after it dried - started it about twenty minutes before gamers would be showing up and got done with plenty of time.

You can get 8 x 11 chipboard at a paper-supply store - I happened to have some around because I used to make creature counters back when we messed around with 3.x, before I owned any miniatures (I'd print Fiery Dragon creature counters on whole sheet label paper, stick the sheets to the chipboard, and cut it up - instant cardboard counters).

The cards worked fine and look pretty good for free and fast.  While I was forwarding the cards picture from the iPad, I saw I had one for this year's jack-o-lantern.  Enjoy!

House Beedo's 2011 Jack-O-Lantern

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sage Advice: Adventure Details

There's clear tension between the amount of adventure detail in a published work, utility at the table, and required preparation time.  The X factor is the DM's ability to think on his or her feet and improvise interesting details.  It could probably be represented as an equation:

X = Y:  Detail requires reading and preparation; walls of text are useless while running the game, so all the prep is necessary for memorization, creating notes, and highlights.  Meanwhile, sparse notes are easy to read and parse while running the game, but the important details need to be improvised.  There are correlations between detail and prep time, and improvisational ability and the degree of sparseness the DM can handle.

There was a post over at Telecanter's place that laid out the case against too much details; it went like this - detail is expensive (it takes up a lot of time), it demands mastery (you need to keep the details straight), and it's dominant - once something is tagged, it's hard to change the descriptors, the details stick.

One sheet of notes for a huge level
There's been a whole minimalist movement in the OSR, starting long before I was out here posting, to recapture that sense of 'creation at game time', where the adventure is laid out in the loosest level of detail imaginable, and the DM improvises on the fly.  The "one-page dungeon" movement and Sham's empty room principle captures this aesthetic well; sparse description and empty space transforms the effort of DMing a game from rote memorization and regurgitation into an effort of creation on the fly.  Remember those interesting Gygax pictures, like this one, of Gary running his famous Castle Greyhawk?  The map might be intricate, but  the prepared notes seem as brief as possible.

On the other hand, there are adventure writers like James Raggi that insist on extensive detail, and make impassioned defenses both of the published adventure and copious detail.  Consider this excerpt from the introduction to LOTFP's Hammers of the God:

It is the atmosphere and flavor which I feel is the most valuable in a commercial adventure. Anybody can make maps and stock them with monsters and treasure. You can even do it randomly. Off-the-cuff refereeing is a skill that indeed requires no outside support, be it commercial or free. But I know when I buy an adventure, I am seeking in-depth descriptions that make the map and the contents of the location come alive, and hopefully in a way that I would never have done on my own…

There are some valid points there; note that he doesn't denigrate off-the-cuff refereeing, he just opines that there's not much you'd need from a publisher.  We'll come back to that point later.  He goes on to make another interesting observation, one that I agree with; one way to learn how to run your own games better is observing how other DMs do things.  You can't always sit in when other DMs run their games (although Google+ games seem to be changing that!) but you can pick up staging tips if a module author makes it a tacit goal to impart that kind of help through the module presentation:

Becoming a good musician starts with having a good record collection. Being a top athlete means competing against the very best. I think a Referee can only benefit from taking another’s adventure and adapting their style to the author’s presentation, instead of doing the commonly-vaunted reverse method of always adapting published material to the Referee’s own campaign.

The "problems" of detail have different solutions for the home DM vs the RPG Publisher.  In the home game, we should strive to run wild with that minimalist style; write down just enough to keep the facts straight and jog your memory if you get fuzzy.  You are your campaign.  The reason there is no published Castle Greyhawk is because Gary was Castle Greyhawk; how do you catalog and document a life-time of running adventures in a location you mostly improvised?  You don't.  That's why we'll never have the real thing.  Go make your own.

For publishers, the answer is different.  When I look to buy a published module, it's for one of three reasons - either the author has established a specific theme or tone (using the authorial voice Mr Raggi discusses in his quote above), or the author is providing new tools for enabling the home DM, or the module covers a significant amount of scope.  I've done a fair amount of reviews the past year, with more on the way, and those adventures that score highest  in my personal ratings do something new and different in one of those three areas.  For everything else, you'd probably be better off just home brewing it yourself.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Table Manners: A response to Noisms

Noisms pointed out some subjects D&D RPG bloggers tend to avoid, and I saw Simon is going to rise to the occasion as well.  Plus, there are many comments at Noisms's place - here are some more!  It's a perfect lazy Friday post.

There is an entire social side of the hobby that doesn't get touched on much in the blogs or the published game books.  I haven't had the chance to get onto any of the Google+ games, but this would be the best reason for me to be a player out there; one of the surest ways to improve as a DM is to play with some great DMs and see how they handle their tables.

Here are some practices from Table Beedo:

Roleplaying, Voices, and Roll-playing
I don't mind hamming up characters, taking on some physical characteristics of an NPC from time to time, and I have a long history in the 90's doing all those character-driven White Wolf games.  That stuff is GREAT when it comes from the DM.  But whenever a player disagrees with the group and starts in with "My character would/would not choose X for role playing reasons…", it's going to lead to tears and breaking glass.

D&D is a cooperative game of problem solving and adventure, and there's no place for role playing choices that inhibit group play; the needs of the many outweigh the few. Player-versus-Player conflict is not accepted or wanted.  I don't mind players discussing role playing choices out-of-character and coming to a consensus, but any time we've had players that have stolen the spotlight and warped the game around their in-character dramatic role playing choices, they haven't lasted long in my group.

For that reason, I'm really dubious about alignment, and many of the sub-classes in AD&D, because they come with built-in agendas that can warp group play - Paladins, Rangers, Assassins, Druids - bah.  They're all banned unless the group clamors for one.  Our current group does indeed have a Paladin, but that's because they have a powerful Cleric that was already guiding party activities towards "good" versus the roguish pillaging they were engaging in earlier in the campaign.  As a group, they cheerfully agreed that a Paladin was a good idea when one of the kids suggested making one.  At that point, I concede; it's their group.

I've had plenty of "evil" characters in my games in the past, and they bring a lot of drama and interest, as long as the evil acts happen off screen or back in town, and involve NPCs.  When it's adventure time, it's team time.  For instance, one campaign had a callous and slimy Magic User that tended to overuse Charm Person whenever he was passing through a place, leaving behind a slew of cheated merchants and pregnant farm girls.  He was shockingly despicable, but during adventures, he was all business; no PvP action in sight.

So that's my line - role playing enhances the game and makes the experience fun, but the moment it crosses over into a distraction from group goals and makes the game less fun for everyone else, you need to take that person aside and have The Talk.  This happens all the time with the kids, and once you explain to them that D&D is a team sport, the kids usually get it.  It's the immature adults who respond with, "F-U, Beedo, I'm taking my Half-Orc Cleric/Assassin and going to play World of Warcraft on a PvP Server."

Snacks, Breaks, and Booze
I host like 90% of the time, and players bring snacks; each week the snack duty rotates, and the snack person brings a few bags of chips and pretzels.  During important sessions and boss showdowns, some wise guy might bring chocolate covered donuts or Pop'Ems in an effort to cloud my judgment; curse them for knowing the DM's weaknesses.

We only play three or so hours, so we don't take breaks - folks just wander out as necessary.  These days we go with water only; there are kids at the game and a few of the guys have to drive, but we've had beer at game night in the past.  For that matter, every game night starts with The Song:  the theme for Monday Night Football.  The only thing better each week than the kick off for Monday Night Football is kicking off game night.

Other curious table habits:  the bringer of snacks is also the party "Caller" for the night; this ensures the duty rotates around the table and every body gets a chance to be the table boss.  Weekly snack duty comes along with an honorary title, such as Ceasar Octavius Snackius, Thurston J Snackwell the 3rd, or Spongebob Snackpants.  This week, snacks will be brought in by JR, in the role of alien snackoid from the planet Snack.  (It's true, I can be amused by really dumb things like making up a weekly snack title.)

The Absent Player
You cede control over your character's life when you miss a game, and the other players run the guy like a henchman.  Pretty much everyone is a friend or acquaintance of each other, so they don't go out of there way to abuse the characters of missing players, but it's also true that those guys tend to be the ones that open doors and test potions.  Just saying.

Talking About the Hobby
The first rule of Fight Club….

On a more serious note, I'm long past caring what people think about gaming.  I've got a successful career, awesome family; I'm very open about my enjoyment of history, fantasy, horror and sci-fi literature, and running a weekly D&D game.  You get used to reactions that run the gamut from embarrassed chuckles ("You still play that game from the 80's?"), shocked incredulity ("That game's not evil?") and the occasional approval ("Very cool, I wish I had a group near me").  My neighborhood has a few dads who play, and a few who nod politely and don't let their kids over because they're close-minded.  C'est la vie.

The funny thing about explaining gaming to interested newbies is that it's become easier to discuss video games like Zelda or WOW, and then just say this is like playing those games from the time before computers.  Ouch.

Narrative Style
I believe in progressive elaboration, start bland and high level, and reveal more details as the group asks questions and investigates.  I'm not shy of big words, but I understand that long descriptions put people to sleep, and folks can't parse too many things at one time in short term memory.